Over the last couple of decades, the public has somehow lost confidence in the ability of piano competitions – with their eager hopefuls spending months refining mandatory entries and the same jurors moving from one location to the next, carrying their prejudices with them – to really churn out the most thoughtful and innovative interprets of a generation. It used to be that winning an important competition would almost guarantee a successful career. Not any more, but laureates are still offered the benefit of sponsored performances at important venues, allowing them a chance to prove their artistry in the real world, not in a hothouse environment.

Nikita Mndoyants © Cleveland International Piano Competition
Nikita Mndoyants
© Cleveland International Piano Competition

No matter how many doubts one might have had about Nikita Mndoyants’ talent before attending his debut recital at Carnegie Hall, they were easily dispelled. The Russian pianist, winner of the 2016 edition of the Cleveland International Piano Competition, is a serious musician indeed. For such an important step in his budding career, he didn’t choose a facile, easy to please program, but one full of potential pitfalls that he navigated brilliantly. He started with Beethoven’s Six Bagatelles, Op. 126. Rarely played, these little gems are trivial trifles only in name. Similar to the contemporary drawings included in Goya’s Bordeaux Albums, they are composed by means of a remarkable freedom of expression that the two artists attained at the pinnacle of their careers. With their hints of counterpoint and concentration of thoughts, the bagatelles share a musical universe with the five late piano sonatas. Mndoyants made clear this link, underlining, as an example, the echo of the slow movement of the Hammerklavier sonata in the ternary melody appearing in the Bagatelles’ Andante, Cantabile e Grazioso. Overall, his interpretation, a little on the rough side in the louder moments, was more thoughtful then dazzling with virtuosity, bringing forward, in the intimate space of the Weill Recital Hall, the colors and moods that permeate the score.

There is an obvious active vs. pensive vein, not dissimilar to Schumann's “Florestan vs. Eusebius” concept, which characterizes Beethoven’s cycle, in particular such pieces as the Presto. In Mndoyants’ vision, the Bagatelles Op. 126 are a true premonition of Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6, the second work on the evening’s program.

The eighteen short pieces invoking the Davidsbündler, Schumann’s imaginary brotherhood of artists combating philistinism, are first and foremost a self-portrait describing the composer’s “varied states of mind” during his long and arduous courtship of Clara Wieck. The mood alternates between gentle and forceful, poignant and cheerful. Changes in the state of mind can be abrupt and rendering these fleeting moments is one of the challenges of a successful interpretation. Mndoyants’ playing was quite mercurial, capturing the music’s unbridled imagination. He also handled well the asynchronous rhythmic patterns, unexpected accents, and unresolved harmonies that are abundant in this work. There were several moments of daydreaming and lingering that were somehow missed, but that's something to be expected from a young and impetuous pianist.

The second part of the program was devoted to one of the masterpieces of 20th century pianism: Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 8, Op. 84. Mndoyants prefaced it with his own seven minute long composition, Variations on a theme by Paganini (2007), interspersing Paganini quotes through a neutral canvas embellished with pyrotechnics and contrapuntal elements.

The pianist played this third of the so-called Prokofiev’s “wartime” sonatas with obvious enjoyment, surmounting all the technical difficulties effortlessly. He approached the tonally unstable first part, Andante dolce, with its alternating shadows and thunders, as another possible incarnation of the “Florestan vs. Eusebius” dispute. The relatively laconic Andante sognando was subdued. The loud and dissonance-filled Vivace, a sonata-rondo classical form, was dispatched with tremendous energy marked by whiffs of irony. The contrasting, enigmatic section preceding the recapitulation was treated with special care.

Here, in the Weill Recital Hall, Nikita Mndoyants proved his adeptness in shaping small musical forms and meaningfully connecting them. Next time around, and I’m sure he will be invited back soon, he will have to also demonstrate his ability to tackle the larger forms of the classic-romantic repertoire.

Click here to read an interview with Nikita Mndoyants carried out before the concert.